30 May, 2010

May recipe: Lemon meringue pie

I’m not a fan of cold meringues – you know, the kind you buy in patisseries, filled with cream and the like. They always seem too sweet for me, like a solidified form of candy-floss. But I do like hot meringues, which are made with half the amount of sugar and which complement sharp flavours like lemon and apple. Lemon meringue pie was one of the first things I learned to cook. Light and crisp, it seems to suit spring and early summer. There are many variations on the recipe. Here’s mine.

Lemon meringue pie

Shortcrust pastry
4 oz (approx 125 g) plain flour
1 oz (approx 30 g) lard
1 oz (approx 30 g) butter

Lemon filling
1 oz (approx 30 g) cornflour
0.5 pint (approx 280 ml) water
Juice and rind of 1 lemon
3 oz (approx 80 g) light brown soft sugar
2 egg yolks

2 egg whites
2 oz (approx 50 g) white sugar (granulated or caster)

To make the pastry case
Rub the butter and lard into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Mix to a stiff dough with a little cold water, added gradually. If the mix is still floury, add a little more water. If it gets sticky, add a little more flour.
(Or you could use ready-made pastry if you prefer)
Roll out pastry to line a flan tin about 7 inches (approx 28 cm) in diameter.
Bake the pastry case ‘blind’, i.e. empty, in a hot oven approx 200 C for about 10 - 15 minutes until pastry is set.

To make the filling
Mix the cornflour and lemon juice to a smooth paste. Add a little of the water from the measured 0.5 pint if necessary to make it thin enough to pour.
Put the rest of the 0.5 pint of water into a small saucepan and bring to the boil.
Pour the cornflour paste into the pan of boiling water, stirring all the time. It should thicken to a near-solid consistency.
Stir in the sugar and the lemon rind.
Simmer over a low heat for 2-3 minutes, stirring.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little.
Beat in the egg yolks.
Pour the lemon filling into the cooked pastry case.

To make the meringue
Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl until standing in soft peaks.
Fold in the sugar using a metal spoon.
Pile the meringue on top of the lemon filling in the cooked pastry case.
Bake in a hot oven, approx 180 - 200 C, for 10 – 15 minutes until the meringue is set, crisp and golden brown.

Serve hot or cold. I expect to get 4 – 6 slices out of this recipe, but that depends how big a slice you like. It will keep a couple of days at room temperature if you don’t eat it all at one sitting.

23 May, 2010

Sunrise in the West, by Edith Pargeter. Book review

First published 1974. Edition reviewed: The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN 978-1402237607. This edition includes all four of the Brothers of Gwynedd novels in one binding. Sunrise in the West, 186 pages. Complete quartet, 782 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet covers the following four novels:

  • Sunrise in the West

  • The Dragon at Noonday

  • The Hounds of Sunset

  • Afterglow and Nightfall

Sunrise in the West is the first in Edith Pargeter’s series of four novels telling the story of Llewellyn ap Griffith, the last Prince of independent Wales, and his mercurial brother David ap Griffith in thirteenth-century Wales. Many of the major characters are historical figures, notably Llewellyn and David, their mother Lady Senena and their two other brothers Owen Goch (“Owen the Red”) and Rhodri, and King Henry III of England. The narrator Samson, clerk and secretary to Llewellyn, is fictional, as is his lover Cristin and her husband Godred. Sunrise in the West tells the first part of Llewellyn and Samson’s story, from their birth in 1228 to Llewellyn’s achievement of a (more or less) united Wales in 1258.

The result of a single night’s liaison between one of Lady Senena’s waiting-women and an unknown father, Samson is brought up by the monks of Aberdaron and educated as a clerk, learning to love books and music. When he is twelve, his life changes for ever when Lady Senena makes a bargain with the English King Henry III and Samson goes in her retinue to the English court in London. But far from buying her husband Griffith’s freedom as she intended, Senena finds she has only succeeded in exchanging his Welsh prison for an English one. A tragedy at the Tower of London results in Samson returning to Wales, where Senena’s second son Llewellyn has been carving out an independent princedom of Gwynedd in defiance of his mother. Samson becomes Llewellyn’s clerk and confidante, placing him at the heart of the turmoil in Gwynedd as Llewellyn strives to unite the notoriously fractious Welsh lords under his leadership – thwarted at every turn by his brothers, who vie ruthlessly for power.

I read the Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet years ago, and am pleased to see it reissued. Edith Pargeter’s writing style is deceptive. When I started re-reading Sunrise in the West it seemed excessively dry, especially the long and detailed opening account of Samson’s conception and birth. I began wondering if my memories of the novel from the first time round were absurdly rose-tinted. However, the writing has a quiet skill that soon drew me back into the complex, colourful, contradictory world of medieval Wales. Samson, first as a child and then as Llewellyn’s clerk, is more of an observer than a participant and recounts the twists and turns of politics and betrayal with a cool detachment that brings clarity to events that might otherwise be difficult to follow. It has to be said that Samson himself is not the most compelling of characters, especially in this first book of the quartet, and his star-crossed love for the noble Cristin is barely introduced. Centre stage belongs to Llewellyn and his charming and enigmatic youngest brother David, both fully developed as complex individuals. These two, and the fraught relationship between them, are the best features of Sunrise in the West (and I would say of the whole quartet).

Llewellyn is portrayed as a true hero, able, courageous, honourable, generous and intelligent, selflessly working for the good of his people. He is thoroughly admirable as well as likeable, though I occasionally found myself shaking my head over his apparently na├»ve determination to think the best of David’s actions. David is an altogether more complex and contradictory proposition. Like Llewellyn, he is able, brave and intelligent. He is also handsome and charming, but even though he is only about twenty by the end of the novel a darker side to his character is already apparent. This is shown not only in his dealings with Llewellyn, but also when he rebukes Samson for not murdering a defenceless man. It seems David is torn between noble instincts and baser ones, between his love and respect for his brother and his own greed and ambition. He reminds me of a fallen angel, half wilfully destructive, half striving towards the light. “He is as deep as the sea of Enlli, and as hard to know,” his mother Senena says of him when he is still a child, and that seems a fair summing up. If Llewellyn is the hero of the quarter, David is its star.

There is some battlefield action, though much of the conflict between the brothers is emotional and verbal rather than physical. Landscape descriptions are a particular feature in Edith Pargeter’s writing, and Sunrise in the West is no exception. The steely mountains of Snowdonia, the rolling sheep pastures, the salt marshes of the coast are all beautifully painted in words. There is no map, at least in the advance review copy, so readers who want to follow Llewellyn’s campaigns and Samson’s travels will need to have an atlas to hand. Also no author’s note, which is a shame but probably reflects the period when the novel was originally written. A glossary of Welsh terms at the back of the book will be helpful for readers unfamiliar with the setting, though I found the terms clear enough to understand from context. I expect the alarming number of typos in the advance copy will have been fixed in the final edition.

First in a thoughtful and evocative quartet of novels telling the powerful story of Llewellyn ap Griffith, last prince of independent Wales.

The four Brothers of Gwynedd novels are featured in the 2010 Sourcebooks Summer Reading Club, May – August 2010. For each novel, online reviews are posted in a specific week and an online discussion hosted a few days later. The discussion for Sunrise in the West will be held at Passages to the Past tomorrow, Monday May 24, at 7pm-9pm EST. The other reviews for Sunrise in the West are as follows:

May 17 Reviews

The Burton Review

The Bibliophilic Book Blog


A Reader's Respite

History Undressed

Linda Banche Blog

A Hoyden's Look at Literature

Renee's Reads

May 18 Reviews

Between the Pages

The Broken Teepee

Books and Coffee

Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell

Tanzanite's Shelf and Stuff

Passages to the Past

The Book Faery

A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore

Martha's Bookshelf

May 19 Reviews

Beth Fish

Deb's Book Bag

Book Tumbling

A Work in Progress

Stiletto Storytime

Queen of Happy Endings

May 20 Reviews

The Literate Housewife

Reading Adventures

Books Like Breathing

Kailana's Written World

Confessions of a Muse in the Fog

Wendy's Minding Spot

Mrs. Q Book Addict

The Life and Lies of a Flying Inanimate Object

Starting Fresh

May 21 Reviews

Loving Heart Mommy

Peeking Between the Pages

Celtic Lady's Ramblings


One Literature Nut

The Book Tree

My Reading Room

12 May, 2010

Silk in early England

One would expect wool and linen to be readily available in early medieval Britain, as the climate is suitable for growing flax and rearing sheep. What about exotic luxury textiles, like silk?



Textiles, like other organic materials, do not usually survive well in archaeological deposits, unless the environment is either very dry (e.g. caves in a desert) or waterlogged (e.g. peat bogs). However, if textiles are deposited in close contact with metal objects, the corrosion of the metal can sometimes preserve fragments of the associated textile, either directly or as an impression in the corrosion products.

One of the funerary practices in widespread use by the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’), before they converted to Christianity, was inhumation burial with grave goods. The body was placed in the grave fully clothed, complete with jewellery and clothing fasteners such as brooches and belt buckles. Many of the clothing fasteners were made of metal, commonly copper alloy (bronze and related materials) or iron. Other metal objects such as tools, weapons or personal possessions were sometimes also buried with the body, and where these items touched clothing or other textiles such as cloth bags or wrappers they may also preserve fragments of textile.

Obviously, these tiny pieces of preserved fabric say very little about the overall shape and structure of the garments or cloths they were once part of. Nevertheless, they can say a great deal about the types of fibres, the spinning and weaving techniques used, and even, with careful chemical analysis, about dyes, colours and patterns.

Analysis of 3,800 records of preserved textiles from 1,730 graves excavated in what is now England has provided a wealth of information (Walton Rogers 2007). It should be noted that, by definition, this is a sample of textiles buried in graves containing metal objects, and may not necessarily be representative of textiles in use that were not deposited as grave goods, or textiles that were deposited in graves that did not contain metal objects. This caveat aside, however, it probably gives us a reasonable idea (and very likely the best we are going to get) of the textiles in use in Anglo-Saxon England.

Two fragments of silk cloth have been recorded (Walton Rogers 2007):

  • very fine silk twill* weave found with a Frankish brooch dated to the early- to mid-sixth century, from Dover in Kent;

  • silk tabby* weave wrapped around a small copper-alloy ball from a seventh-century smith’s grave at Tattershall Thorpe, Lincolnshire.

The smith had a miscellaneous collection of goods from Continental Europe, perhaps acquired in extensive travels (Walton Rogers 2007).

Documentary sources

Letter written by Cuthbert, abbot of Wearmouth, to Lul, Archbishop of Mainz, in 764

...you have sent, namely, an all silk robe for the relics of Bede, our master of blessed memory...
--Letter of Cuthbert to Lul, quoted in: Crossley-Holland 1999

Note: this Abbot Cuthbert is not the same as the famous St Cuthbert, who lived in the previous century.

Bede, Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow

Among other things, he brought two cloaks, all of silk, and of incomparable workmanship, for which he received an estate of three hides on the south bank of the river Were, near, its mouth, from King Alfrid

--Bede, Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, Chapter 9, available online

The abbot in question is Benedict Biscop. King Aldfrid became king of Northumbria in 684 (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV Ch.26). One hide was the area of land required to support one family.


The archaeological samples and the documentary evidence are consistent. Silk cloth was clearly known in Anglo-Saxon England in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries. It was also clearly very rare, very expensive (two high-quality silk cloaks bought enough farmland to support three families), and confined to people who had contacts with Continental Europe (Benedict Biscop brought silk cloaks back from Rome; Abbot Cuthbert received a silk robe from the Archbishop of Mainz in what is now Germany; the grave in Dover contained a brooch from Merovingian France; the smith at Tattershall Thorpe had several items from Europe and had perhaps travelled widely).


Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Bede, Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, Chapter 9, available online
Crossley-Holland K. The Anglo-Saxon world: an anthology. Oxford University Press 1999, ISBN 0-19-283547-5.
Walton Rogers P. Cloth and clothing in early Anglo-Saxon England. Council for British Archaeology 2007, ISBN 978-1-902771-54-0.

Map links
Dover, Kent
Tattershall Thorpe, Lincolnshire

*In tabby weave the weft threads go alternately under and over one warp thread at a time; in twill weave the weft threads go over and under two or more warp threads at a time, each row stepping one thread to the side of the previous row. Tabby weaving is the simplest type, and if you did some hand-weaving in junior school it was almost certainly tabby weaving. I’ll come back to these techniques in more detail another time.

09 May, 2010

Bluebell woods

The bluebells flowered a couple of weeks later this year than last, but were all the more spectacular for it.

Bank of bluebells and stitchwort along the edge of a wood.....

Bluebells flowing off into the distance under the trees......

..... under the bright fresh green of new leaves.

"In every wood in every spring there is a different green"
--JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

05 May, 2010

Daughters of the Witching Hill, by Mary Sharratt. Book review

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010, ISBN 978-0-547-06967-8, 327 pages. Review copy kindly provided by publisher.

Set in the Pendle district of east Lancashire in 1582-1612, Daughters of the Witching Hill tells the story of Elizabeth (Bess) Southerns (nickname, Old Mother Demdike), her daughter Elizabeth (Liza) Device and granddaughter Alizon Device, and the other men and women accused of witchcraft at the Pendle witch trials of 1612. All the main characters are historical figures. Some of the secondary characters have been re-named or are composites of historical figures, as explained in the Afterword.

Bess Southerns is a poor widow aged 50 with a grown-up son and daughter, living in poverty in the crumbling Malkin Tower near Pendle Hill. Without a trade or land to farm, Bess and her family eke out a precarious existence, living hand-to-mouth from begging or casual labouring work and never know where their next meal is coming from. Then Bess meets her familiar spirit, Tibb, who appears to her sometimes as a handsome youth and sometimes as a dog or a hare, and discovers that she has supernatural powers to heal the sick and see the future. Bess quickly gains a reputation as a ‘cunning woman’, and her family’s fortunes take a sharp turn for the better. Her daughter Liza marries a farmhand with a steady job, and Bess’s charms and herbal cures bring in a useful income. But Bess’s oldest friend, another poor widow named Anne Whittle (nickname Chattox), is in dire need of Bess’s powers to protect her daughter from sexual assault by their landlord’s brutal son. Reluctantly, Bess teaches Anne and her daughter to work dark magic to rid themselves of him, and soon the two families become enemies and rivals. Bess’s lovely granddaughter Alizon has inherited the power and shows promise to become as powerful as Bess herself – but when a pedlar is crippled after an argument with Alizon, the old feud gives the zealous local magistrate the perfect opportunity to make his name as a witch-finder and to destroy Bess and her family for ever.

The Pendle witch trial of 1612 was a real event, recorded in detail and published a year later by court clerk Thomas Potts. James I/VI* had recently published a book on witchcraft called Daemonologie, and hunting witches offered a promising avenue for advancement to ambitious officials. On top of this, anti-Catholic hysteria had gained ground after the Spanish Armada of 1588 and especially after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and Catholicism became partly conflated with witchcraft. In the novel, Bess remembers the pre-Reformation Church with its saints and feast days and the abbeys with their charity to the poor, and many of her charms and ‘spells’ are Latin prayers. However, the novel makes clear that Bess’s supernatural powers are not purely Catholic rituals, and her familiar spirit is clearly not a Catholic saint. Bess and Alizon believe explicitly in elves, fairies, familiar spirits, and the power of their own magic to kill or cure, and so, perforce, must the reader.

Daughters of the Witching Hill is narrated in first person, by Bess for the first half of the book and by Alizon for the second half. Written from their point of view, it gives a sympathetic portrait of the accused witches and, by extension, a decidedly unsympathetic view of the prosecuting magistrate Roger Nowell and those of the local gentry who abused their positions of privilege. For me, the most compelling feature of the book was the detail of the women’s lives, as they scrape a precarious living and try to hold their families together in the face of hardship and suspicion. If you want to imagine how hard life was for those clinging to the margins of society in early seventeenth-century England, this is the book for you. The injustice and unfairness of it all – the grinding poverty that reduces a beautiful young woman to a hag in a few years, the law that does nothing to protect the poor, the complete absence of any way in which Bess and her family can improve their situation, the appalling conditions of their imprisonment (one of the accused died in prison, and no wonder), and the apparently foregone conclusion of the trial – provoke sympathy and indignation in equal measure.

The price for the amount of detail is a long book and a slow pace. The narrative covers thirty years, and at times it feels like it. Although the social history is moving, I found the characters’ individual stories less compelling, perhaps because it was weighed down by the bleak descriptions of their lives. For example, the feud between the Demdike and Chattox families never really came alive for me, and I would have liked to explore the change in the relationship between Bess and Anne from close friends to bitter enemies in more depth. This may be because I’m familiar with the story of the Pendle witches, so I already knew what happened to everyone before reading the novel; another reader encountering the story for the first time may react differently.

Both Bess and Alizon experience supernatural visions and dreams that are used to foreshadow events – e.g. Bess’s prediction that Alizon will lead the procession on Assumption Day, poignantly fulfilled – and to provide glimpses of happenings in the outside world when both narrators are incarcerated in a lightless dungeon in Lancaster Castle. The mystical angle also allows the ending to be less desolate than the actual outcome might suggest (Google for Pendle Witches if you want to know what happened).

A detailed map sets out the locations of the various houses and farms in the story for readers unfamiliar with the local area, and a helpful Afterword outlines the historical background and suggests some books for further reading.

Sympathetic, slow-paced retelling of the sad story of the Pendle witches.

*He was James I of England and James VI of Scotland, hence the somewhat clumsy notation